Category Archives: Intermediate-Middle School Chapter Books

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The Dog, Ray by Linda Coggin

This book reminds me a bit of A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron, but for middle school readers. It is written by a British author and set in the U.K. The book is narrated by a girl named Daisy and opens with her death at the age of 12 in a car accident. Daisy’s soul is sent back to earth as a newborn puppy. But she still remembers her life as Daisy. She spends the beginning part of the book trying to get back to her parents. She has been born as a dog in the same town where she lived as a girl and sees a newspaper article about her accident. Her father survived, but is now paralyzed.

Daisy starts out her life as a dog with a mean boy and his mother, but she runs away from them and ends up with a homeless man named Jack who is kind to her and introduces her to 14-year-old Kip, new to the streets after running away from foster care following the death of his mother. Daisy ends up being named Ray by Kip and she becomes his dog for better or worse as they travel in search of Kip’s father, who doesn’t know he exists.

Daisy does actually meet her parents at one point in the book, when she is at an animal shelter, but the reader comes to realize as the book goes on the bittersweet truth of Daisy’s new existence: being with her parents again isn’t meant to be – this is a new life. Daisy slowly begins to lose the memory of who she was and becomes more dog-like in her thinking and actions. The reader sees her transform from human in a dog’s body to dog. A beautiful and poignant story of life, loss, and love, with serious issues handled gently. The story is also interspersed with humor from Daisy’s first-person narration, so it is not too heavy. It does also have a happy ending when Kip tracks down his father and he and Ray are happily taken in by him and his family. We also see Daisy’s parents again, who adopt a service dog, so their lives go on also.

 

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The Borrowed House by Hilda Van Stockum

This book is set in Holland during the Nazi occupation of World War II. Janna is 12 and lives in Germany. She is a member of the Hitler Youth and believes in her country and her leader. She has been apart from her parents for two years. They are well-known actors and are traveling, entertaining the German troops. They are currently in Amsterdam and have procured a house to live in, so they send for Janna. The house they are living in belonged to the Van Arkel family, a well-to-do Dutch family who have been evicted from the house from the occupying Germans for their own use. Janna and her parents share the house with another German family, a couple and their young son. Janna’s mother is close with a Bavarian officer, whose connections got them the house. As Janna looks through the house and sees the possessions of the Van Arkel family, including a girl her age whose room she is occupying, she begins to wonder about the family. She also sees how the Nazis treat people out in the street. This, combined with discussions with her Dutch tutor and overhearing the Bavarian officer criticize the Nazis, leads to a slow realization that what she has been taught in the Hitler Youth is not the truth. She and her mother develop compassion for the victims of the Nazis, while their father remains loyal. When Janna discovers that a boy named Josef is hiding in a secret room in the house and then learns that he is Jewish, her moral integrity is tested verses the Nazi propaganda that has been indoctrinated in her. Janna chooses to protect Josef and keep his secret from her parents.

An exciting story that is not too graphic in its depiction of Nazi horror to be inappropriate for mature middle schoolers, though it does mention Nazi euthanasia of older people and the gas chambers in the death camps, so children should have already been introduced to the Holocaust before reading it. A criticism is that it really doesn’t show the true Nazi horror – Janna and her mother as well as the Bavarian officer are sympathetic to the victims and Janna’s father is ignorant of the true evil that is happening. The book may paint too flattering a portrait of German citizens, since many Germans hated Jews and informed on them and condoned or participated in the violence and horror, but as a coming-of-age story about Janna and her self-actualization, it a fine story, and as historical fiction, it teaches about the Dutch Resistance and the dangers of prejudice in a manner suitable for middle schoolers.

 

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Corso the Donkey by C. E Pothast-Gimberg and translated by Hilda van Stockum

This is a lovely book I came across when I was searching for titles by Hilda van Stockum, a Danish author who wrote some World War II chapter books about the Dutch experience under Nazi rule, as well as a few charming series about family life. This book was published in the early 1960s and was translated from the Dutch into English by van Stockum.

It tells the story of a girl named Toni, who lives in Corsica with her father and brothers on a farm. Her mother passed away two years ago. Her mother was originally from Holland and when her brother visits the family from Holland to buy some donkeys and transport them back to his country to sell, he suggests that Toni stay with him for a year. Toni wants to see where her mother came from, so she agrees, though she will miss her family. She has a special donkey named Corso who was born when her mother died that she is especially attached to. She doesn’t want her uncle to take Corso. They agree that he will not sell Corso, but Corso will make the journey with them to Holland and then return with Toni. In Corsica, Toni at first has a hard time relating to her aunt, who is quiet and doesn’t seem to approve of Toni’s ways, which are freer than what her aunt would prefer. But in time Toni realizes her aunt does care for her, just in her own way. It is hard for Toni to see the donkeys get sold one by one, but she makes sure they all go to good homes and raises a ruckus when she sees donkeys being mistreated. As an animal lover, I really liked how the book emphasized kindness and patience rather than harshness or beating as a way to get the animals to cooperate. I also have a fondness for donkeys, sweet and gentle creatures that they are. Jealousy arises when a blind girl Toni’s age grows fond of Corso and he seems to prefer her to Toni. In the end, Toni allows Corso to stay with the girl – she does this with a giving heart, knowing her mother would approve. She in turn has a young donkey whose mother was killed in a storm to take care of. This book held my interest throughout and taught important values about love, friendship, and kindness. Though it is old-fashioned, a good story stands the test of time and children do love books about animals.

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All Four Stars by Tara Dairman

11-year old Gladys loves to cook, but her parents eat take-out and don’t have the first clue about cooking. Gladys does most of her cooking in secret after school before they come home from work. They would prefer she have more friends and do more typical kid activities. When she accidentally sets the kitchen on fire while making creme brulee, she is temporarily banned from cooking. Meanwhile, she gets an assignment at school to write about her passion. She hands in the essay as a cover letter applying for her dream job: restaurant critic for a big New York City newspaper. Through a series of mishaps, the essay ends up in the hands of the food editor and Gladys is hired via email to write a freelance review of a downtown bakery! Now she has to find a way to get downtown to visit the bakery without her parents finding out. In her quest to get to the bakery, Gladys ends up making new friends and enriching her solitary life. This is a charming read, with lots of humor. The characters and situations are mostly over-the-top (her parents start out like caricatures but are portrayed more realistically by the end of the book), but it is great fun and Gladys does grow as a person and develop real relationships as a result of her scheming. The book also introduces a number of foods from exotic locales, including Asia, and includes a recipe at the end. As someone who enjoys cooking and baking, I found it especially appealing. The book is followed by two more: The Stars of Summer and Stars So Sweet.

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Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Maas

Jeremy lost his father when he was eight to a car accident. Now about to turn 13, he receives a box his father left for him shortly before his death that Jeremy is to open on his 13th birthday. The box professes to contain the meaning of life. However, the intricate box requires four keys to open and the lawyer has lost the keys! So Jeremy and his best friend Lizzy set out on a quest across New York City to find keys that will open the box or to find the meaning of life on their own if they can’t open the box. Along the way, they meet a number of individuals who expand their thinking and help them grow. This book is wonderful – full of warmth, humor, and wisdom. It shows the reader what really matters in life without being preachy in any way, but very engaging and entertaining. Jeremy and Lizzy are fully fleshed out and believable characters and the supporting characters all add to the story.

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The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

A 13-year old boy learns about redemption in this touching book. Arthur is grieving the senseless death of his father, drunk on a motorcycle, when he loses it after seeing the neighborhood junk man wearing his father’s hat, thrown away by his mother. He throws a brick at the junk man and injures him. After spending a few weeks in a juvenile detention facility, he is sentenced to an unusual probation: assisting the junk man, named Mr. Hampton, with his work. Mr. Hampton leaves Arthur a list of things to collect: the seven most important things, consisting of trash like light bulbs, foil, and cardboard. At first Arthur collects these objects on his own, but after Mr. Hampton collapses at his garage and Arthur finds him, the two begin working together. Arthur also makes a new friend at school who joins him scavenging. It turns out Mr. Hampton is a veteran of World War II (the book is set in 1963) and he is collecting these objects to create a sculpture, creating beauty out of broken objects being important to him because of his war experiences. Gradually, Arthur grows close to Mr. Hampton and cares about his creation, taking responsibility to see it preserved after Mr. Hampton’s death. A lovely story of friendship, loyalty, and love. The book is fiction, but is based on the real sculpture created by James Hampton that is now displayed in a museum in Washington, D.C.

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Three Bird Summer by Sara St. Antoine

A lovely chapter book about a 12-year old boy’s summer at his grandmother’s lake house, making a new friend and dealing with his grandmother’s worsening dementia. Adam is spending his summer at his grandmother’s house on a lake in Minnesota as always. But this year is different because his father and cousins are not there as a result of his parents’ recent divorce. There is also a new neighbor, a girl named Alice who befriends Adam. The book is slow paced, with the beauty of the Minnesota setting providing a peaceful feeling to the narrative. The days are leisurely and filled with swimming, canoeing, and watching the lake’s wildlife. Thrown into this is a mystery that Adam and Alice set out to solve: Adam’s grandmother, whose memory is getting worse and has moments of confusion, begins leaving notes in Adam’s room that seem to be written to a love from long ago, only referred to as “G.” But Adam’s grandfather’s name didn’t start with G. Who is this mystery man from Grandma’s past? When Adam discovers a treasure map created decades ago for his grandmother from the mystery man, he and Alice search for the treasure and eventually solve the mystery. This adds a bit of excitement and suspense to the story, which unfolds beautifully. A well-written book with realistic characters of family and friendship and dealing with changes that come from both growing up and growing old.